Political History Today
Plural Perspectives on a Protean Creature
Pillarisetti Sudhir, May 2011
There was a time, not so long ago, when all history was political history. The oft-repeated dictum that "history is past politics" was reflected in almost all the narratives about the past. Even the Rankean injunction, to tell it like it really was, was interpreted by generations of historians as a guiding principle, not for painting comprehensive, multifaceted pictures of the past, but rather, for producing meticulously researched, analytical chronicles of such grand phenomena as wars, dynastic successions, the making of constitutions, the rise and fall of political institutions, and the struggles for national liberation—the stuff of past politics, in other words.
Ironically, it was the tumultuous, tectonic shifts of the political landscape, especially after the First World War that, coupled with new intellectual currents (which were often themselves political), compelled historians to see the past from new perspectives. Egalitarian and emancipatory movements of people who had been left out of history not only broadened the scope of the discipline, but also engendered a multitude of subfields. And political history (construed as the history of past politics) became one of the many.
Initially eclipsed by such new subfields as social history, intellectual history, women's history, cultural history, and economic history, political history remained, however, a significant component of historical work everywhere; and as the chart below shows, the practitioners of political history within the AHA remained a steadfast group. Even as numbers of the self-professed aficionados of other subfields changed over the years, perhaps reflecting shifting historiographic inclinations, the number of AHA members who declared their primary field to be political history stayed steady in the past 25 years. It may be worth noting that over the years the subfield had changed its character; irradiated by the other subfields and the influences of interdisciplinarity, it went through several mutations that turned it into a new creature that was quite distinct from its genealogical ancestor. How different was it? What are the contours of the subfield these days? It was to find some answers to these questions that the Perspectives on History editorial board decided almost a year ago to devote an entire issue to explorations of the state of political history today. We did not anticipate then that the cataclysmic events of the past few months—the crowds gathering in Cairo's Tahrir Square and ushering in a relatively peaceful transition of power or the struggles of labor unions here in the United States to resist state power, for example—would make the project all the more relevant, as they brought the second half of Freeman's dictum, "Politics is present history" vividly to life. We could not imagine either how, in many ways, historians and other scholars seeking to participate in the public sphere might get caught up in the turbulence of political actions and upheavals—as happened most dramatically with regard to the AHA's own president-elect, William Cronon (whose remarkable case is discussed in the essay by Anthony Grafton and James Grossman).
We could have chosen the subjects and commissioned all the articles for this thematically focused issue, but decided not to do so as that might have skewed the discussion too much. Instead, to allow freer play of ideas, we solicited article proposals in the first instance, and selected about a dozen of those to be developed into full articles. We also commissioned a few articles to cover areas that appeared to have been ignored by respondents to our initial call. The results of that hybrid process are the essays in the following pages. They are necessarily eclectic and wide-ranging in their perspectives and in the topics they discuss, but present, nevertheless, a useful, if incomplete picture of the subfield as it is being thought about or practiced today in different settings. Occasionally—and inevitably—they overlap; but as such replication of thoughts would serve to illustrate useful resonances and conjunctures, we did not seek editorially to eliminate such intellectual echoes and reverberations.
The articles have been arranged so that a reader proceeding linearly—although we will not require this of any reader—will first encounter some theoretical analyses with broader perspectives and then move onto particular considerations of aspects of foreign policy and international relations (which appear to occupy much intellectual space in the subfield today). The next few essays deal with teaching specific aspects of political history and with a variety of sources—both old-fashioned archives as well as digitized versions—that can facilitate teaching and research in political history.
The first essay by Julian Zelizer, sets out what he considers to be the "defining aspect" of the new political history—its interdisciplinarity—and argues that practitioners of political history should tap the full range of scholarship that exists outside history departments. In the essay that follows, that in some ways resonates with Zelizer's, Steven Pincus and William Novak declare that traditional political history is dying, but see it being reincarnated as "a synthetic and integrative history" that is in tune with a "reconceived concept of the 'political'." Taking what appears to be an entirely different tack, but arriving at the same destination of reconfiguring what is meant by "political" (and thus, of political history), Karen Offen proposes that the history of feminism is political history. She also seeks "integration" then, of the history of feminism into the teaching and study of political history.
The two articles that follow, by Durba Ghosh and Vinayak Chaturvedi, respectively, consider larger questions relating to political history, albeit from the perspective of South Asia. Ghosh points out that India "appears to be a dream case for optimists and political historians." Chaturvedi discusses what he sees as an apparent paradox in South Asian historiography—the decline of political history even as histories of politics were in the ascendant.
Sean Perrone's article takes us to a different time and place, in examining the challenges and implications of researching representative institutions and processes in early modern Europe. As he phrases it, "A reassessment of representation is crucial to the study of politics in early modern Europe."
In a clutch of three articles, Jason Parker, David Nickles, and Christopher Dietrich analyze what is perhaps the bellwether (and the persistent anchor) of contemporary political history—the history of international relations and diplomacy—from different angles and vantage points. While there are some inevitable echoes and overlaps in these three essays, the restatements in different voices and registers help to clarify the issues.
The challenges of teaching about specific aspects of political history are the primary concerns of the essays by Gretchen Adams, Kellie Carter Jackson, and Rachel Burstein. Adams examines the ways in which access to digital materials helps her to discuss in more effective ways the issue of memory and political history. Jackson considers the difficult pedagogic problem of teaching about the role of violence in political history. Burstein's essay describes how she uses images in the classroom to discuss events in political history, and how that has helped her to get students more engaged with the topics of discussion. Also addressing teaching issues, and the use of digital resources, E. Thomas Ewing describes how he has been able to use online material for teaching a research seminar for history majors on the theme of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Darren Dochuk's essay, which leavens, so to speak, the three teaching essays, addresses the "religion problem," taking off from the 2004 essay by Jon Butler.
Bringing up the rear, as it were, but dealing with the all-important sources that can be used by researchers and teachers, are the three articles by Carl Ashley, Donald Ritchie, and Rosemarie Zgarri. Ashley's article discusses the resources available for doing research into diplomatic history, including the comprehensive series published by the State Department, the Foreign Relations of the United States. Ritchie points to the riches waiting to be mined in the archives of the U.S. Congress. Zagarri describes the "New Nation Votes" database and hints at the riches it contains, especially for those seeking to understand the political history of the early Republic.
Readers may protest that despite (or because of) their diversity, the following set of essays does not present a complete picture of political history today. We have to agree. Yes, vast areas have been left out and important questions have been left unanswered. This is partly because of the procedure we followed. And, we may conjecture, the incompleteness is also partly and inevitably due to the changing nature of the subfield. The flashes of inspiration, description, and insight the authors provide in the following pages can only illuminate some aspects of the protean creature, captured for a strobe-lit snapshot of a specific aspect at a particular moment in time. For a more comprehensive picture, we may need a sequel.
Pillarisetti Sudhir is the editor of Perspectives on History. He wishes to thank Robert B. Townsend for providing the chart.